For a few years, we’ve been looking for an opportunity to visit Sedbergh, one of England’s most picturesque towns. As luck would have it, we were invited to experience the Black Bull Inn, a highly-regarded gastropub that sits in the heart of this market town. As you can imagine, we only needed to be asked once.
Let me start this travel feature with something now evident to my wife and me: Sedbergh is lovely. Although it is within the official boundary of Cumbria, it also falls within the Yorkshire Dales National Park and is within easy reach of the Lake District. Sedbergh boasts a long rich history, and just like my family name, it is mentioned in the Domesday Book.
In recent years, the Lake District and the Forest of Bowland have always been our preferred areas of England to escape to for a good dose of natural beauty. However, given our recent experience of Sedbergh, the Lake District looks like it will be saying goodbye to its spot in our top two.
Our base of operations for our exploration of Sedbergh was the Black Bull Inn which can trace its roots back to the 17th-century. The Inn is run by the husband and wife team of James Ratcliffe and Nina Matsunaga, with Nina also taking the role of Head Chef. This is a key point as one of the biggest lures of the Black Bull Inn is its food which we’ll cover in more detail later in this feature.
The Black Bull Inn occupies an excellent position within the centre of the town and has free parking at its rear for guests. However, the entrance to the parking area is relatively narrow, and although we managed to get into the car park without any difficulties, those in a large 4×4 or a van etc. might need some help guiding them in.
We arrived at 3:00 pm on the dot, expecting to be checked in. However, we were told that check-in was at 4:00 pm and asked to come back later. We took the extra time to look around the main street, browsing the local shops and visiting the quaint charity book exchange, which we thought was rather an original idea before we learned that Sedbergh is known as England’s Booktown. This simple fact helped to piece things together as every other shop, irrespective of what it offered, also had books in its list of goods.
When 4:00 pm came, we headed back and checked in. In what was a first for us, the person checking us in forgot to explain what facilities the Inn had. We have to put this down to the popularity of the UK staycation in 2021 and the clamour for rooms for properties in the best locations, which must be an unexpected distraction for the staff. Fortunately, the Black Bull Inn offers free Wi-Fi for guests and the internet provided a good deal of the inside information and answers we needed.
After a short conversation, we were given our room key, told where our room was on the top floor of the Inn, asked what time we’d like our dinner and left to our own devices.
We went to our car and brought our case and bags up to the ‘Crook Room’, which we hope has no underlying connotations. The room was spacious, and it, along with the seventeen other rooms, had been the subject of an extensive refurbishment program in recent years. Most people when they think of a room at an inn conjure up images of basic, dark rooms with just the bare essentials, the rooms at the Black Bull Inn are far from this and are modern, light and airy with modern conveniences.
As the Inn is located in the town centre, guests should expect some forms of ambient noise. Fortunately, the rooms have been given double glazed Georgian sash windows, which worked well.
Our room was one of the three luxury guest rooms at the property. The room was spacious with a chaise lounge, flat-screen TV, tea and coffee making facilities and a well-appointed bathroom. One thing that did surprise us was the dividing wall between the bathroom and the suite comprised of transparent glass panels with thin curtains to pull across for privacy. Although this made the suite look a tad more modern and luxurious, we would’ve preferred something more substantial.
While on the subject of the bathroom, unfortunately, the water drainage outlet in the shower cubicle wasn’t working very well, which meant that we had to use the roll top bath’s showerhead instead. Next to the toilet was a window that provided an enticing glimpse of the beautiful countryside surrounding the town. However, it was also within a few feet of another window which we presumed was an adjacent room. That window had net curtains, and we couldn’t tell if someone was in the room or at the window, which meant that our bathroom blind had to remain closed for much of our stay.
After a hard day, I like nothing better than sitting down in front of the TV. Given the Black Bull Inn location and the surrounding high hills, it didn’t surprise me that the Freeview TV channels were limited, with many of my favourite channels missing. However, we expect that most people staying at the Inn would be spending more of their time outdoors than in and for many, watching a tv show would be a long way down their lists.
At the rear of the property, next to the car park, is an area called Stables & Meadows, serving everything from burgers, pizzas to lobster which can be enjoyed in the garden while overlooking the beautiful countryside. As no one had told us what the Inn’s facilities were, we presumed that it was a separate business and only discovered it was part of the Black Bull Inn upon our return. During good weather days, this rather clever use of the outside space would make a wonderful place for a family meal or general get-together.
The Black Bull Inn has had some glowing feedback on multiple review sites, and a good deal of the positive comments focused on the food and service at its restaurant. As mentioned, the co-owner of the Black Bull Inn, Nina Matsunaga, also wears the hat of head chef and given that we felt in need of a bit of a boost, it was left to her and her team to put us on the right track.
The menu provided to us was a little different to what was listed on the Inn’s website. However, this is probably down to some of the produce used being seasonal and we are now living in strange times which could make getting certain produce more difficult.
To begin, we started with some nibbles; I had the crispy Mansergh Hall pork & mustard and my wife Natasha opted for the crispy Barbary duck with a black garlic emulsion. Both were delicious, well-plated and far exceeded our expectations.
We followed this with some starters, Natasha chose the Korean style Mansergh Hall pork belly with sesame and cucumber, and I had the wild Lakeland venison tartar with rye, mustard and cured egg yolk. Once again, the kitchen did an excellent job.
At this point, we should add that my wife and I have never stayed at an inn. Our initial expectation of the food was something akin to good pub food and what we were experiencing was of much higher quality, closer, let’s say to what we would expect at a good quality restaurant.
For the mains, I had Mansergh Hall Pork, N’Duja, spinach, almond and artichoke, whilst Natasha opted for the Shorthorn Beef Sirloin, Dorset Snail, Black Garlic & Turnip. Once again, the presentation was excellent, and the flavours were good. The main’s didn’t reach the very high standards set by the previous two dishes we’d had, but we’re far from disappointing.
Our final course was the desserts, and both of our selections were delicious. Overall, the meal at the Black Bull Inn was excellent, and this was helped in no small part by the efficient service and friendliness of the staff. Having just come from Rothay Manor the night before where Dan McGeorge, now regarded as one of the country’s best chefs, wowed us, the food at the Black Bull Inn in Sedbergh was a good continuation of our culinary journey.
Following our meal, we headed off to get some much-needed rest in what was a very comfortable bed. The next morning we felt fully refreshed and headed down for breakfast in the dining room where Natasha had the Black Bull Inn’s signature cooked breakfast with me opting for a bacon roll. With food in our stomach’s, we decided to head out to explore the countryside.
The natural beauty of Sedburgh
After a couple of days wandering around the busy streets of Ambleside in the Lake District, walking around Sedbergh was altogether different. The streets weren’t crowded, and the sun was peeking through the clouds. It was a welcome relief from the constant fine rain and grey skies we’d experienced during our stay in the Lake District.
The northwest of England is renowned for its friendly people and this was very evident everywhere we went in Sedbergh. People were happy to stop and chat, offer advice on things to see, and in addition to their politeness, were generous with their time.
The first place we headed to was the river, where we had a lovely walk along its grassy banks. The sounds made by the crystal clear water, the lack of people and fresh air was the perfect tonic and helped to dispel any grumbles we had.
If you’re a fan of nature as we are, you’ll be excited to know that Sedbergh is one of the few places in England with a population of red squirrels. From what we saw on the town map, they seemed to be concentrated in a wooded area a short walk from where we were.
The walk to the woods was delightful, with beautiful open pastures filled with cows and sheep bordered by attractive stone properties. Although we did look carefully in the trees, we weren’t able to spot a red squirrel.
With the sun beginning to show its face, we walked to the foot of the monstrous mound overlooking the woods for a sit down on a wooden bench. While there, two women were passing decked out in what looked to us to be professional hiking/climbing equipment. I asked, “Where are you going?” and one of them replied while pointing up into the distance, “Up there, you should give it a go. It’s a lot easier than it looks.”
I thanked them for their time and advice and continued admiring the glorious views from the bench. I turned to Natasha and said, “Shall we give it a go? We’ll get some nice photos, and if it’s too much for me, we can always turn around?”
I was pretty surprised when my wife said, “I’ll do it if you want to.” Fortunately, there was what appeared to be a winding path to the summit, and although quite steep in some places, extra equipment such as ropes were not necessary, only some caution and attention when it comes to foot placement, which was lucky for us as we were only dressed in everyday walking clothing.
The climb took us about 90 minutes and provided the opportunity to take some beautiful photographs of the surrounding area along the way. As we continued to climb, I’ll admit that I did think of heading back down on three or four occasions as this type of physical exertion was something I hadn’t attempted for more than three decades.
With the sun still shining brightly, we reached the summit. We were elated, and the views were spectacular with fields, hills and animal-filled pastures as far as our eyes could see. At the beginning of the climb, the two women we met came over and said, “Well done; we knew you could do it. We kept watching to make sure you were okay.”
I could tell by their accents that the ladies were either local or from the surrounding area, and their warmth and friendliness reaffirmed how special a place we were.
After taking countless photo’s, we decided to make our way back down. About a quarter of a mile from the summit, I noticed a middle-aged couple sat down on the grass near the path. I said, “It’s beautiful up here. Are you having a nice time?” and in a broad London accent, the man replied, “Yeah, why?”
Typical of my luck, here I am, up a mountain in one of the country’s most beautiful areas, and I bump into a Londoner armed with the capital’s famous aloof, unfriendly attitude. I could see in his partner’s eyes that she was embarrassed by him. I wasn’t in the mood to give anyone a dressing down, so I just bade them a warm goodbye and carried on down towards Sedbergh town, and as I looked back, I could see the woman becoming quite animated whilst pointing at her partner.
Overall, our stay at the Black Bull Inn was a positive one. There was a couple of things we experienced that didn’t meet our expectations, which were probably down to our timing or someone having an ‘off day’. Nonetheless, the food was of a very high standard, and the Inn is an ideal base for those wanting to explore the local countryside. The best part of our stay was undoubtedly Sedbergh itself. It is an extraordinarily picturesque area and a slice of England from yesteryear.
There’s not a huge choice in the town when it comes to accommodation, and perhaps this is why the Black Bull Inn gets such positive feedback on review sites. As far as inns go, it is undoubtedly one of the better ones to stay at.
Rooms at the Black Bull Inn are difficult to come by with hardly any availability, which shows the incredible popularity of the area. However, given some of the fantastic deals currently available at luxurious country properties via the larger hotel chains, the Black Bull Inn Sedbergh management needs to go above and beyond to make every guest feel overly welcome, ensuring that they will keep returning to maintain the inn’s excellent reputation.
The Black Bull Inn Sedburgh Information
The address for the Black Bull Inn is 44 Main Street, Sedbergh, Cumbria, LA10 5BL. Their telephone number is +44 (0) 15396 20264, and booking information can be found at their website, www.theblackbullsedbergh.co.uk.
For more information on Sedbergh, please visit www.sedbergh.org.uk.
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